Fanny’s Hand

by Karen Burns

 

In 1778, a servant called Frances (Fanny) was baptised in the Priory. In 1997 a severed hand, believed to be hers, was buried in the Priory grounds.

Six years ago, on a historical tour of Lancaster, my guide mentioned a black servant who worked at 20 Castle Park in the late 1700s. It was only a passing comment, but enough to make me wonder about the servant’s life and background. As we walked around Castle Park on a foggy evening at the start of the Castle Park Stories project, the idea took root.

My search began with the parish records which listed the baptism on 2 April 1778 of

 

Frances Elizabeth JOHNSON a black woman servant to Mr John Satterthwaite, an adult aged 27 years

 

The parish register from 1759-1783 lists the baptism of twenty-two ‘negroes’, but only two of them were women. The other woman, recorded simply as ‘Molly’, died with a month of being baptized. But what of Fanny herself? The history of ordinary people is much harder to trace than that of the great and the good who leave their mark in fine buildings, paintings, memorials and the like. My search for Fanny would need to focus on the rich and influential family for whom she worked.

John Satterthwaite’s father, Benjamin, had been an agent for Gillows in Barbados, trading in mahogany. John, like his father, travelled to the West Indies and in 1777 married Mary (Polly) Rawlins, daughter of a plantation owner on St Kitts. In 1781 they bought 20 Castle Park where Fanny worked as their servant. John and Mary went on to have eleven children. John, whose portrait can be seen in the Judge’s Lodgings, died in 1807 at the age of sixty four. This was as far as I thought my research would take me. I could find no record of Fanny’s death, but I’d read that during that period servants were often treated as members of the family and I hoped that this was the case with Fanny.

I wondered how best to tell the story of this slave/servant who’d travelled three thousand miles from a sugar cane plantation in St Kitts to the grey skies of Lancaster but then, quite unexpectedly, I came across something that would send my story in a different direction altogether; something troubling that challenged all my preconceptions and took me on my own journey of discovery.

Two boys wrote an account for their school newspaper of the visit of Eliza Dear. On April 23rd 1997 Eliza, a descendant of the Satterthwaite family, had buried a severed hand in the memorial garden of Lancaster Priory. The hand had been passed through generations of her family and was said to be the hand of a much loved black slave. Eliza believed it could have been the hand of Fanny Johnson.

Reading this story had a profound effect on me. The lesser part of me was, I must admit, thrilled to find out that there might be more to tell about Fanny. As I read the account, my elation quickly turned to horror and then to fascination. I had no desire to sensationalise the story, quite the opposite in fact. I just wanted to try and understand. I contacted the school to see if they could put me in touch with Eliza. And then I waited. I tried to understand the story I’d uncovered. It seemed inconceivable that a much loved servant would be remembered by keeping her hand. The only reference I could find to mummified hands was the superstitious practice of the so-called ‘Hand of Glory’. The severed hand of a thief was believed to have mysterious powers. It was said that if a burglar brought the hand into a house, the hand would send the dwellers to sleep or alert the burglar if anyone was still awake. Whether the hand did belong to Fanny, or was evidence of a completely unconnected superstition, I was interested to understand the family’s story.

Alongside this research, I followed the Satterthwaite family tree, but, without knowing how Eliza was related to the John of our story, my research took me down several dead ends and to a host of other interesting lives.

Throughout this time, my mind returned again and again to the hand itself. The more I read, the less I understood, yet the need to know grew stronger and stronger, fed rather than satisfied by my research.

Just as I was starting to give up hope, I received an email from Eliza – did I want to give her a call? I had so many questions for her, but she too had a story to tell. After a lengthy phone call, we agreed to meet. It was a bright Saturday afternoon in January, and the snow was still thick on the summit of Ingleborough. As I approached Settle the snow deepened and I wished I’d packed a shovel. I was ill-prepared for the trip in so many respects, but I relished the adventure.

Within minutes of meeting Eliza, I felt a tremendous respect for her, and also discomfort that I’d intruded on a story that wasn’t mine to tell. Eliza, now in her seventies, was generous with her time and her memories. She told me how her mother had treasured the hand more than the fine paintings and Gillows furniture passed down through the family. Eliza was an only child and, to console herself in her loneliness, she would often play with the hand and think fondly of the love and care this black slave had given to her family.

As she talked, I was struck more and more by how this hand could signify such different things to different people. It was a curiosity, a scandal, a testament to Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade. At the same time, it was a cherished family heirloom, a symbol of love and care. And at the heart of it, whether it was Fanny’s hand or not, was flesh and blood; an individual who couldn’t tell her own story.

Eliza explained that her family had lived at Castle Park until 1932 when her mother married and moved to Gloucestershire. The hand had hung over the fireplace for many years. It came into Eliza’s possession in 1970 with the death of her mother. Eliza felt it was no longer acceptable to own the hand and she began to trace her family back to the age of the slave trade. Eliza is descended from James Cornelius Satterthwaite, John and Mary’s eleventh child.

Eliza gave the hand to a Trinidadian friend who took it back to the West Indies and, much to his wife’s consternation, kept it in his fridge until Eliza came to research the story for herself. Eliza found that Mary Satterthwaite’s father, Stedman Rawlins, had owned three plantations on St Kitts. The Satterthwaites themselves were a successful, influential family and whilst they had indeed been connected to the slave trade, they were, as Quakers, part of the movement for the abolition of slavery too. During her stay on St Kitts Eliza visited an Indian guru who advised her that she should bury the hand with the body and so she brought the hand back to England.

Eliza could find no record of Fanny’s death. It’s possible that Fanny would have been buried in a communal grave. And so, in 1997, Eliza had the hand buried in the memorial garden of the Priory, in a casket with some soil from St Kitts. The site is marked by a simple stone recording the date of Fanny’s baptism.

Ten years later Eliza wrote her own poignant account of her search for Fanny. I imagine at that point she felt that the story had reached its conclusion and I felt guilty for my intrusion.

A few days after our meeting, Eliza contacted me to say she was sending me all her papers relating to Fanny and the hand. She felt that she had reached the end of the story and it was time to pass it on.

I was deeply moved by Fanny and Eliza’s story. I came to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter whether or not it was Fanny’s hand. It matters more that we acknowledge and seek to understand our part in this difficult history, rather than brushing it under the carpet. I’m glad that Fanny – and others like her – will be remembered.

 

I was inspired to research Fanny Johnson, the black servant at 20 Castle Park, because I’d heard about her on a guided tour and I wanted to find out more about her life and how she came to be here in Lancaster.

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